Beyond the Blowout: Arizona Cardinals closer game lost in the score

Explore how the Cardinals' performance against the 49ers was more impressive than the score suggests, with insights from Earned Drive Points.
San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals
San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals / Christian Petersen/GettyImages

The San Francisco 49ers decisively beat the Arizona Cardinals in their Week 15 matchup, finishing with a commanding 45-29 victory. MVP candidate Brock Purdy put up over 250 yards and three scores through the air, while the 'Niners’ second MVP candidate, Christian McCaffrey, added 115 yards on the ground. It’s safe to say the Cardinals were at a major talent disadvantage, and it showed.

However, a closer analysis using a new dive-based metric called 'Earned Drive Points' (EDP) suggests the game was more competitive than the score indicates. Created by Sportfoliokings, EDP aims to show a true reflection of how effectively a team moves the ball. EDP considers various factors, such as how a team acquires yards, to determine how easily a team can replicate their drives.

This all-inclusive statistic painted a much different narrative of the game. With San Francisco earning just 30 drive points, while the Cards earned themselves 28. Obviously, the final score is the only one that matters and this is not to dispute that in any way; but it would be naive to say that all losses are the same.

In a game where the Cardinals three leading pass catchers were all tight ends, they were able to move the ball pretty effectively. It was a disappearing act from the wide receiver group, finishing with four catches and 20 yards combined. The offensive success was mostly due to a great day on the ground, producing 234 rushing yards.

The Arizona Cardinals stronger play overshadowed by a lopsided score

In a tie game in the first quarter, Kyler Murray threw an interception that was returned all the way for a touchdown by Chardavius Ward. This felt like the start of a real momentum swing, and it showed in their next drive.

Though they were able to muster up a field goal and points out of it, the drive following the INT earned just 0.9 points according to EDP. A drive that started on their own 25, they only gained six air yards on two passes and faced two third downs (one being a 3rd & 22).

On top of that, there was a delay of game penalty, immediately followed by a sack that set up the third and very long. A drive like this isn’t going to generate any points very often. In this case, a 19-yard run to the outside by Michael Carter Jr. and a whopping 58-yard field goal by a 39-year-old Matt Prater gave the Cardinals points.

It was more of the same from the Cardinals until the fourth quarter with Prater adding another field goal in the second quarter and one more in the third. The fourth quarter saw a little more life from the offense again. Though it may have been in “garbage time”, the 'Niners defense was still out there trying to stop them from scoring. They were able to put together two touchdown drives to keep the final score more respectable.

San Francisco only earning 30 drive points doesn’t necessarily mean that the defense played better than the score showed. In fact, it indicates the opposite. Many of the 'Niners real points came from busted coverages and were aided by the Cardinals inability to rush the quarterback; something that’s much less likely to happen against some better defenses.

Blueprint for progress: Key offseason focus areas for the Cardinals

Despite the lopsided score, this game showed Cardinals fans the areas that need the immediate attention in the off season:

  1. More production from the wide receiving corps is absolutely necessary if you’re going to try and contend with teams like the 'Niners in the near future. It’s going to take more than one draft pick, too. The team needs to try and get one of the top free-agent wideouts this off season to put with an emerging young tight end
  2. They need someone who can go put the other quarterback on the ground. Late in the game, when it’s 3rd down and 8 from the 45 yard-line, who’s a guy that can go get to the quarterback and bring him down or effect the throw and get your star quarterback back on the field?
  3. This defense needs to gel once they're healthy. With Bobby Price designated to return from the IR, there’s hope he’ll bolster up this defensive backfield that has struggled mightily all year. They have some talented players in their DB room, and a great leader in Budda Baker; but for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to be working. 

It also showed Cardinals fans that there’s hope for the future. Their ground game is firing on all cylinders, and has been for a large part of this year thanks to a career year from James Conner. Despite his tendency to be reckless with the football, Kyler Murray can make plays on the field that few others on planet earth can make.

With a potent offense already, adding in some reliable wide-outs, and a player you can count on to attack the opposing quarterback, there could be a really quick turnaround under new management in the desert.